U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad left Qatar for Afghanistan on Sunday with a tough mission: To get Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s assurance that his government will cooperate with whatever deal the U.S. is hammering out with the Taliban over the past week.
But Ghani — whose government is at odds with the Taliban, a group behind countless attacks on Afghans for decades — is likely to look at any kind of “peace” deal in a different light that the Trump administration. He will likely be required to include the Taliban in an interim government and call new elections.
President Donald Trump has been very vocal about wanting to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan (as well as Iraq and Syria) and leave the conflicts there for others to sort out. His generals have disagreed with him, and the daylight between the White House and the Pentagon on these issues has lead many to question U.S. commitments in Afghanistan — a conflict it started in the wake of the 2001 attacks.
These talks, though are a victory for the Taliban. The group’s twitter account retweeted an encouraging message on the success of the talks from Qatar’s foreign minister, positioning itself as an advocate for peace, even as it continues its attacks around the country:
this war could have be avoided if US listened & talked to Taliban in 2001 before the invasion.
talks after 18 years war is not an achievement but it's the reinvention of the wheel! https://t.co/Y41iPMR9Bi
— Alvizier – عبد الله الوزير (@Alvizier) January 26, 2019
The latest draft of the U.S. agreement (which will continue to be negotiated in continuing talks next month) with the Taliban includes an 18-month timeline of withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for assurances from the Taliban that it will prevent al Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) from using Afghanistan to launch an attack on the U.S. and its allies.
These seem like tough deliverables on the side of the Taliban for a number of reasons: Rife corruption and economic hardship make any kind of security promise hard to keep. Afghanistan also shares a porous border with Pakistan (from which some Taliban fighters hail), allowing for a fluid flow of weapons and militant groups such as the Haqqani Network.
President Trump has repeatedly said that ISIS has been defeated, so worrying about the group operating in Afghanistan appears to be an acknowledgement that this is indeed not the case (if the recent deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Syria did not make that point already).
So counting on the Taliban to keep al Qaeda in check might also be pure folly.
Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, told ThinkProgress that “the Taliban are working hand-in-glove with al Qaeda…our goal, initially, was to drive a wedge between these two groups. But in fact, it appears that they’ve grown closer,” said Clarke, pointing out that al Qaeda fighters are embedded with the Taliban.
“The initial goal in going to Afghanistan was to destroy al Qaeda. However, eighteen years later, if you ask any U.S. official, all they’ll talk to you about is the Taliban. So I think we’ve conflated two issues. One is a transnational terrorist organization…and the other [the Taliban] is an ethnic Pashtun group that isn’t leaving Afghanistan, no matter how many are killed are captured,” said Clarke.
“So with eighteen years, and trillions of dollars, and the world’s most powerful military, we now have a robust presence of an al Qaeda offshoot in Afghanistan. This leads me to believe that we’re back to the beginning, and, actually, in a worse place than we were before,” he added.
Clarke, who helped produce an alarming report released on Wednesday by the Soufan Center on the spread of al Qaeda in South Asia, said there is right now, he said, “no coherent strategy” on how to deal with the mounting threat in the region, which includes India and Pakistan, two neighboring, adversarial nuclear powers.
If the U.S. is really interested in countering extremism, including al Qaeda, it should first counter Saudi Arabia’s efforts to fund mosques and schools that spread ultra-conservative Wahhabist ideology in the region.
“There’s no will in the current administration to counter the Saudis at all. They’ve been given a free pass,” said Clarke.
In the event that a peace deal is finalized, Afghans will have to live with its consequences in a very immediate and direct way. The Taliban have aggressively fought to re-take territory from U.S. forces (the group now controls half of the country) and demand a place in the government, and all that it comes with — power, and, notably, territory.
Afghans being quoted in local media are expressing some optimism, but are concerned that talks are being being held behind closed doors . “They are not even allowing the media to observe these closed door talks – to know what they are talking about, therefore we do not have any idea about our future,” one man told TOLOnews.
Ghani, who has been pushing for peace talks, has no control over the timeline of any U.S. troop withdrawal, and has to watch his adversaries negotiate with his ally on foreign soil. The Taliban refuse to speak directly to Ghani’s government, viewing the U.S. as the entity that can make any final decision on foreign troop presence in the country.